Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games

There’s been a  recent spate of baggy monsters on Bombay; off the top of my mind, there’s Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts and Maximum City by Suketu Mehta. Sacred Games is my favorite of the lot, though.

One of the reasons I like it so is the book’s non-inclusion of a glossary. To explain: I grew up in India, and remember reading Enid Blyton books as a child and wondering why schoolgirls were called bricks and what a scone was–with no way to find out. And ditto with many of the references in Portnoy’s Complaint, for example, or Catcher in the Rye (both huge influences in my adolescence). Western writers seemed to assume–if they thought about it at all–that readers ‘outside’ need to make the effort to understand. 

I find Chandra offers up his work with the same confidence. He assumes the reader will meet the writer on the latter’s terms, and doesn’t take any special precaution to write for a certain audience. So many Indian writers seem to feel compelled to explain India as they write, often resulting in a horribly intrusive authorial presence. As I said in my review:

The book is filled with non-English words (a mix of Hindi and Marathi, for the most part). The conversation is sauced with a vast range of expletives, all again in Bombay-talk, and the setting is a Bombayite’s Bombay. There are knowing references to yaars and chaavis, to bastis and kholis; many of the terms will be incomprehensible to people from, say, the south of India, let alone the California where Chandra teaches (creative writing at UC Berkeley).

Here, then, is an India being offered on its own terms to the reader, who may be Indian or non-Indian; familiar or unfamiliar with the country; and significantly — a reader whose identity is not key to the creation of the work. Self-assured and confident about its audience, the narrative never pauses to elaborate upon its many references to events in Indian history, the Bombay film industry, or even Indian street food, and there’s no helpful glossary on the last page.

Well, it turns out that there is a glossary in the American edition. I wrote my review based on my copy– the 2006 British edition–which didn’t have a glossary. So much for my theory… 

My review initially appeared in the Asian Review of Books ; excerpts of the piece also appear on Vikram Chandra’s website. A reprint of the piece was published in DesiJournal this week.

7 responses to “Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games

  1. Well, also, since “everything” is on the web these days, if you do have a British copy, you can look up a word online.

    I read an interview with Chandra that stated they decided to add a glossary later…

  2. Hi, Niranjana… I found your blog when you clicked on mine and came to say hello. Nice work. I will add this: one thing I loved about being an American child reading Brit-lit was finding connections between various books (an item mentioned in Peter Pan would show up in Prince Caspian, etc.) and finally, finally figuring out what the particular word or term meant.

    Same, of course, with Shakespeare — although there the footnotes are a bit more helpful.

    But it’s the joy of reading, re-reading, and discovery — and why, when I get my copy of Sacred Games, I’ll deliciously avoid the glossary until I’m absolutely flummoxed. ^__^

  3. Thanks for dropping by, blue! Do let me know what you think of Sacred Games when you finish it. And good luck for your trip to India!

  4. Blue:
    You’ll never be flummoxed. You may well not know the exact meaning of a word, but you’ll always get the general idea.

    Niranjana:
    Why don’t you post your whole review here? I’m working on mine right now, and yours sounds like it could enrich mine.

  5. @ Ronak: I hope you found my review useful! Let me know when your review is up.

  6. Actually, I found your review after I was done (meaning it’s already up). Turns out we took rather different views on the whole business; from the comments, I realise I’ve over-emphasised the language business.

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